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SSM: On DFW’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”

17 May

by Jennifer Shapland, ASF editorial assistant

Girl With Curious Hair is not exactly David Foster Wallace’s best-known or loved or remembered work, but it is a monumental one. These are ten stories, or nine stories and one deadly novella, in which serious literary and syntactic muscles are flexed. And yet to me, the stories are accessible, even intimate. Wallace is a moralist. His stories bear witness to much more than the verbal trapeze act he’s known for.

The biggest hurdle in this collection—maybe in all of his works—is the final piece, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” It is a cover story, parts of which are “written in the margins of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse.” It’s a story that revisits and takes for granted the existence of a specific other story. Writing it was transformative for Wallace as a writer.  In David Lipsky’s new book of interviews, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says of “Westward,” “I’ve said that three or four times somethin’ came alive to me, and started kind of writing itself, and that was one of them.” (He follows with, “Although it wasn’t a very happy experience”).  “Westward” is long, 140 pages long, and it rambles and digresses and circles around and in on itself relentlessly. I have encountered very few people who actually finished the story. And Wallace realized that. He tells Lipsky, “Not many people like [“Westward”] and what I was told is you cannot really expect the reader to have read something twenty years earlier in order to get your thing.” He knew he had attempted something fairly huge and he knew that he sort of failed.

Here’s the thing: I love this story. I love its ambition. The premise is a trip, a journey deep into rural Illinois (funny that his essay on the Illinois State Fair was written years later). The characters are en route to a reunion of everyone who’s ever been in a McDonald’s commercial, held at this pretty sinister physical interpretation of Barth’s funhouse. Basically, Wallace is trying to write his way out of the trap of metafiction set by writers like Barth by using metafiction, stretching self-referentiality to its limits. In DFW’s rendition, however, the characters, the travelers, are writers. And the thing is, they don’t make it to their destination. The ultimate literary convention, the journey, is arrested and essentially killed by the style itself.

Go back and read Barth’s story if you get the chance. See how many times he references Joyce’s Ulysses. See how he strives to create a journey that goes exactly nowhere. And notice how the only place he can go with a story that is textually self-aware is back into the role of the writer. The last line: “He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.”

People are still talking about Wallace as though he’s one of those secret operators, someone metafictional and obtuse and damn inaccessible. Read him. Read these stories. He is the one trying so hard—trying so hard in 1989—to push American fiction past all that. To actually take into account the aims of metafiction like Barth’s, rather than writing it off as categorically unfun to read, and to seek new ways to access those aims in readable, honest fiction. Girl With Curious Hair shows ten different ways he does just that. And how he does it with humor, grace, and his sort of lilting inward smile. “Westward,” despite its failings, shows us even something else: a new epic. And it suggests a potential for epic to be contained within short fiction, an endeavor that, as far as I know, no one else has undertaken.

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!
Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.

7 Responses to “SSM: On DFW’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way””

  1. Joshua Rohrmayer 11. Jun, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    This is pretty much exactly how I feel about this collection and “Westward”. Really satisfying to read. Thank you. I just linked to this article in a review I wrote ( http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/37848156 )of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Adaptation as I felt there was some mentionable kinship between the two works.

  2. Daniel Wood 10. Aug, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    I have never read John Barth’s story, but even with only a vague notion of what David Foster Wallace was referencing, until I looked it up online, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” still struck me as brilliant. Just the idea of a Mcdonalds commercial featuring all prior actors as a reunion of epic proportions tickles me giddy. I probably can’t properly express some of the finer points of his prowess, but the image of deep fried roses consumed to extinguish any fear of overstepping social mores is commendably absurd.

  3. Shazia HR 19. Nov, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    Some sentences in the story are also from Cynthia Ozick’s Usurpation.

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  1. Tweets that mention SSM: On DFW’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” – American Short Fiction blog -- Topsy.com - 17. May, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmericanShortFiction. AmericanShortFiction said: Cure the Mondays. Blog today for #ShortStory Month: Editorial Asst. Jenn Shapland on DFW's "Westward…" http://bit.ly/bVGXxj […]

  2. That “Finishing a Novel” Buzz « Into The Volcano - 24. Jun, 2012

    […] Hair finishes with ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’, a story which is regarded as quite a marathon to get through – but the last lines still give that “conclusive” feeling as a bit of a reward. Share […]

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